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Natural methods to speed labor?

September 19, 2011

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Q. Do natural methods to speed labor really work?

A. Many women have their labor medically induced, either because the labor isn’t progressing fast enough, or because of health complications with the mother or baby. Doctors can try to induce labor with medications that soften the cervix or promote contractions, or through physically dilating the cervix or “breaking the water’’ by making a hole in the amniotic sac surrounding the baby. Many women are eager for a more natural way to induce labor, and there are plenty of folk remedies to choose from, including eating spicy foods, exercising, or having sex.

Beth Hardiman, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Mount Auburn Hospital, says that while there is not a lot of research about the effectiveness of these strategies, some seem to work better than others. She doesn’t recommend methods that try to stir up the bowels by eating spicy foods or taking laxatives - the result can simply be digestive discomfort. The same goes for vigorous exercise beyond what you feel comfortable doing.

Some people argue that sex contributes to labor contractions, but studies on the effect of sexual intercourse and orgasm on labor have yielded mixed results. Some studies have supported acupuncture as a method to hurry labor, but a clinical trial that compared true acupuncture with a “sham’’ procedure that didn’t use needles found no effectiveness of the treatment over a placebo.

A more promising strategy is nipple stimulation, either manually or with a breast pump, which encourages the production of oxytocin, a hormone that stimulates contractions. Another technique that a health professional can perform is called “sweeping the membranes,’’ which involves inserting a finger into the cervix and moving it around to separate the membrane attaching the amniotic sac to the uterus.

Hardiman emphasizes that when methods of labor induction do seem to work, it’s usually when a woman’s body is already ready for birth - her cervix has softened and begun dilating. Until that happens, she counsels women to be patient and let the process unfold naturally as much as possible, rather than trying to game the system.

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